Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Half Brother.
What appears at first a love triangle--a man in love who sees his younger brother as “the better man,” eventually offering this golden boy to the woman he fell in love with the first time they met--is in fact a multi-layered tale of family secrets, unarticulated yearning, and the utter futility of trying to control the lives of others.
The main narrative voice, Charlie Garrett, arrives on campus for his first teaching job at the age of twenty-three, settling into the shabbily-genteel Abbott School in Massachusetts. Hailing from Savannah, Charlie has never known his father, who perished in Viet Nam.
Charlie is instinctively attracted to the (he imagines) near-perfect Preston Bankhead, the school chaplain, a man of austere, noble presence, and his family, a bevy of blond-haired sons and
a dark-headed daughter, May. Charlie imagines a life such as Bankhead’s for himself, the comforts of home and family in a bucolic, peaceful setting.
Despite her young age, Charlie can’t help but notice the independent May Bankhead, who like her brothers will one day be his student. As is common in college towns like Abbottsford, Charlie grows more assured, comfortable with his students and the academic environment, occasionally returning to Savannah to visit his mother, Anita, and step-brother--the golden child--Nicky Satterthwaite. Though Charlie has fallen for May, he is unable to make his feelings known. May leaves for Paris,
while Nicky eventually comes to Abbottsford with Charlie. When May returns home, the three, now older, find a place on the Abbot School campus.
Though his secret heart is bound to May, Charlie is forced by circumstances toward the first of a series of crossroads, making a painful choice that alters his future: “If you ignore your conscience, you will regret it the rest of your life. That is always true.” Surrounded by the camaraderie of friends, Charlie makes peace with his decision. Nicky becomes part of the Abbottsford academic community,
leaving May caught between two brothers: long-suffering, noble Charlie and charismatic Nick. If Charlie hopes to control the carefully manicured world he has created, moving May and Nicky around like chess pieces on a board, he will learn the foolishness of trying to manipulate the actions of others, even those he desperately loves. Anita Satterthwaite’s visit to her sons over the Christmas holidays is a pivotal part of a quietly unfolding drama.
Fate intervenes with devastating carelessness to reshuffle the lives of these characters into a new paradigm, one battered by pitfalls, secrets and betrayals.
There is a lot to like about this novel, but a plodding pace in the first half of the book hampers the powerful unraveling of truth in the final chapters. Writing as a male protagonist, even one in tune with the language of poets, De Craw does not easily inhabit Charlie’s psyche.
His self-conscious sensitivity (co-dependence and sacrifice) undermine qualities that are meant to be strengths. The author is far more self-assured in the character of Anita, Charlie’s mother, injecting sorely needed passion into a novel weighted with what-might-have-been-but-isn’t. Anita’s is the only real, cohesive voice, a mother fashioning stories to heal the rifts in her children’s lives, bringing closure to the open-ended, the false assumption of what’s really true and what has been constructed of half cloth. Though the passion quotient is low, the underlying emotions are turbulent and volatile, falsity buried under winter snow waiting for the thaw. This novel is better in some aspects, weaker in others, a tortured ending ultimately pushing the novel into soapland.